Special ASEAN Regional Summit in Australia

SYDNEY — Although Australia isn’t a member of ASEAN, the country is hosting a summit of leaders from nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Strengthening economic and security ties will be the focus for the Canberra government, which has set aside $186.7 million to help countries in Southeast Asia and more broadly in the Indo-Pacific region boost their maritime security.

Analysts say Australia will also have to negotiate the region’s intricate ties to China. 

The multimillion-dollar funding was announced Monday by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong.  Analysts have said the move is a response to China’s growing assertiveness and its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Wong said in a statement that Australia was “working closely with Southeast Asian partners to respond to shared maritime challenges and uphold international law.”

Wong did not mention China by name when she later told the ASEAN meeting in Melbourne that the region faced “destabilizing, provocative and coercive actions including unsafe conduct at sea and in the air.”

ASEAN was set up in August 1967 and comprises 10 members, including Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

Relations with China have a been divisive issue within the alliance. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have strong ties to Beijing, while Singapore and the Philippines have had strained relations with China.

There has also been friction between Australia and China in recent years over various geopolitical and trade disputes, although tensions have eased since the election of a left-leaning government in Canberra in May 2022.

Nick Bisley, a professor of International Relations at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.  that the Canberra government’s dealings with ASEAN require deft diplomacy.

“Because we have been so full-throated in not only being on America’s side, but from the previous government pointing fingers at China in various ways, and so that definitely complicates our relationship both with individual Southeast Asian countries and with ASEAN as a whole,”  he said.

The special ASEAN summit in Melbourne marks 50 years since Australia became the grouping’s first dialogue partner.  The United States and China have similar partnership arrangements.

Melbourne is hosting leaders and officials from the association from Monday to Wednesday.

ASEAN member Myanmar was excluded from the summit because of the ongoing conflict in the country.

Timor-Leste wants to become an ASEAN member and is attending the gathering in Australia.

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